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There is an idealised image of policing, often called “community policing,” where the police are on the ground locally, working with the local community to resolve disputes and are present to deter low-level crimes and be in place to tackle more serious crime. Unfortunately, the current situation facing many law enforcement organisations is far from this idealised image, and demands new thinking and new equipment.

One of the most significant developments of recent years is the growth of common ground between the missions of the military and the requirements of law enforcement. That is a situation that has not always been the case, for the majority of western militaries their primary objective has, obviously, been dealing with conventional military threats. This was the classic scenario for militaries in the Cold War era, yet even then the military still found itself from time-to-time having to become involved in the civilian sector.

Military involvement in the civil sector, characterised by many as ‘military aid to the civil power’ would see military assets deployed to aid civilian authorities in times of crisis. This might see troops and equipment deployed in the circumstances of a natural disaster, which is a logical move. The military has the ability to deploy rapidly, has the people and has engineering and other equipment that could make a vital contribution to disaster relief/recovery. Such uses of the military in support of civilian government were totally uncontroversial, other facets of military involvement in the civil sphere were not always that welcome.

The use of the military in cases of civil disruption caused by strikes or demonstrations is not new, although it is certainly never that welcome by the military. A somewhat benign version of the military helping in this regard comes from 1977, when British fire services went on strike and the military was tasked to take over the fire fighting mission.

Fortunately, as a part of civil defence preparations in the 1950s, the then Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) had been equipped with large numbers of Bedford RLHZ GREEN GODDESS fire engines, these were put into store when civil defence was cutback and resurrected and given to the Army in 1977 to fight fires. When this industrial dispute finished, the GREEN GODDESS vehicles were put back into store, but reappeared in 1978/79 during another strike. The GREEN GODDESS fleet made its last appearance during the fire service strikes in 2002/2003, after which they were retired. There were fully equipped and trained fire fighters within the British military, but the vast majority of troops deployed with the GREEN GODDESS equipment could hardly be considered as fully trained fire fighters. Which means it was fortunate that they did not find themselves over-committed to dealing with serious conflagrations.

In the past governments would often turn to the military option in order to deal with street disorder or to break strikes, fortunately this is now the exception rather than the rule. From the military perspective, the law enforcement mission is for law enforcement to handle. The military can assist other public services such as fire and ambulance, but again this is not their primary mission. In special cases such as disaster relief the military will inevitably have a key role to play. The most important point is that if the military is operating in the civilian space it must be operating under civilian direction, unless absolutely necessary the military should be providing assistance, it should not, unless directed by the higher civilian authority, be providing leadership.

All-Encompassing Threats

The recipe that works is that the military keeps to its primary mission, while law enforcement and the other emergency services occupy the civil space and fulfil their designated missions. Doing that keeps everybody happy, avoids misunderstandings and has the right people doing the right job at the right time. This is all well and good, but what do you do once the rules of the game change, when the barriers between dealing with military and law enforcement challenges start to blur. It was terrorism and the need to counter it that led to the blurring of lines between law enforcement and military solutions.
The problem is that the terrorist threats that emerged in the 1960s and the 1970s have very little in common with the kind of terrorist threats that we face today. Today, the scope of terrorism is far broader than it has ever been before and it is therefore far harder to counter. To complicate matters even further there is the growing nexus between terrorism and organised crime, the vast sums of money that can be made in trafficking narcotics are incredibly attractive to terrorist groups, an example of this would be the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that was heavily involved in narcotics. Since FARC signed a peace accord with the Colombian government in 2016, some elements of the organisation have turned their back on the peace process and have returned to narcotics trafficking. Hezbollah, a group with tremendous global reach, has funded its operations through drug trafficking from South America and also from the Middle East. Apart from the money involved, drug trafficking networks also provide a highly effective means of moving people, equipment and funds between countries without the knowledge of their governments.

There was a time when a national response to terrorist threats would primarily be seen as a law enforcement issue, the same would be true of dealing with drug trafficking. This is where matters become very difficult, the threats being faced are no longer domestic threats, there is a much broader context to these threats, often far beyond the resources or understanding of national law enforcement. Furthermore these threats increasingly have access to weapons and equipment that allow them to ‘out gun’ local law enforcement.

The medium weight armoured-wheeled vehicle SURVIVOR R as a solution for police forces was jointly developed by Rheinmetall MAN Military Vehicles (RMMV) and the Austrian company Achleitner. (Photo: Gerhard Heiming)

One possible solution to terrorist threats having more firepower than law enforcement can handle is to deploy troops in support. In France troops have been deployed for many years in support of the Vigipirate anti-terrorist plan. Even in Britain which, with the exception of the situation in Northern Ireland, has gone out of its way to avoid deploying troops on the streets has used the military to guard key sites such as Heathrow airport in the past. Despite its reluctance to use the military on the streets, the British government did sanction the use of the military to protect key areas during the 2012 London Olympics.

The Islamic State-inspired wave of terrorism in recent years has led to a rethink of military assistance to civilian law enforcement. In France Vigipirate has evolved into Opération Sentinelle post-the November 2015 terrorist assault on France. This sees the deployment of both troops and the Gendarmerie to guard sensitive points, it also saw changes in rules of engagement. Previously the military had to go through a time consuming process before it could use live ammunition, now soldiers can use live ammunition and their weapons are loaded. In Belgium Operation Vigilant Guardian saw the Belgian Army on the streets of Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016. While in England the military was deployed on to the streets in Operation Temperer in the wave of the Manchester bombing of May 2017, with a further military deployment in the wake of the Parsons Green bombing in September 2017.


Being realistic there is nothing to be gained from involving the military in active measures against domestic terrorism or in the struggle against narcotics or organised crime. Beyond national borders the military can be used as the primary response force, it can also be used to patrol against drug trafficking or more active drug interdiction missions. For dealing with domestic issues, that is those within national borders, it is for law enforcement to take the leading role.

The problem here is that law enforcement is under resourced for the missions it is expected to undertake. The general public want to have to police being far more visible and devoting far more time and resources to crimes against the person and crimes against property, things that impact on their quality of life. Unfortunately, this represents only a small part of what government expects its police force to do. In London the Metropolitan Police is short of hundreds of detectives, it is also short of officers that it could use to patrol the streets. However, the Mayor of London found the money and the police numbers to set up a unit dealing with ‘hate crimes,’ particularly the online version of such crimes.

On the other hand, positive steps have been and are being taken to improve the capabilities of law enforcement and those of other emergency services via the transfer of military equipment and related operational techniques. In the US as a part of the ‘1990-1991 National Defense Authorization Act’, Congress inserted language that called for the transfer of excess Department of Defense (DoD) equipment to other federal and state authorities as part of the ‘war on drugs.’ This was the ‘1033 Program’ and it was later expanded to include equipment for counter-terrorism. Under the ‘1033 Program’ all sorts of surplus equipment can be supplied to law enforcement agencies at low or no cost. The acquiring agency is responsible for the cost of transferring the equipment to their location and for its maintenance.

For US law enforcement agencies the ‘1033 Program’ allows them access to all kinds of equipment from military small arms up to helicopters. In terms of vehicles, the HMMWV can be acquired in all formats. Additionally with the drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq there were large numbers of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) available as surplus. For law enforcement the MRAP provides a host of possibilities such as protected mobility and anti-riot use, for example breaking down barricades. The acquisition of military equipment by US law enforcement has seen allegations of militarising the police, this is not true and it should be noted that it was Congress that started the ‘1033 Program,’ not the DoD or law enforcement.

Elsewhere, other law enforcement agencies have used armoured vehicles as standard equipment. In France the Gendarmerie still have some 70 Berliet VXB 12.7 tonne wheeled armoured vehicles in service, some of these made an appearance on the streets of Paris during the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations of 2018/2019. Both the Gendarmerie and the Police Nationale are interested in a new armoured vehicle and one of the possibilities for this role is the Véhicules Blindés Multi-Rôles (VBMR) Léger SERVAL, built by Nexter and Texelis for the French Army Scorpion programme. More than 2,000 are to be acquired and a French Gendarmerie/Police buy could benefit from the economies of scale that this provides. Elsewhere, the Rheinmetall SURVIVOR R wheeled armoured vehicle has been selected by a number of police authorities in Germany.

Dealing with a terrorist incident or a disaster will require the involvement of the police, fire, ambulance and other rescue workers. Problems have arisen in this process due to the fragility of communications between the different services involved, often they just cannot talk to each other, complicating coordination and potentially increasing risk. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has discovered that their communications are often not robust enough to cope with the conditions they operate in, for example in tunnels or in larger multi-storey buildings. All of this creates a need for a robust communications infrastructure for such emergency services, potentially an ideal environment for the use of military communications and networking systems. Utilising military-based solutions would also allow the emergency services to communicate with the military during emergency situations.

The growth of terrorist threats in recent years has forced police agencies to look at military-grade solutions to deal with the threat. In France after the major terrorist attacks of 2015 it became apparent that the police were not equipped to deal with threats of this nature. Prior to 2015 in times of perceived terrorist threat it was not unusual to see a single police officer outside a local Commissariat de Police wearing ill fitting body armour that might perhaps have been viable twenty years before and equipped with an M12SD 9×19 mm sub-machine gun (Beretta PM-12 produced under license in France), with the weapon usually looking totally uncared force.

Post-2015 in France the police suddenly became far better equipped, deliveries of the Heckler & Koch (HK) G36C and G36K assault rifles in 5.56×45 mm commenced in March 2016 and were completed by mid-2016. Also acquired was new and more effective body armour, body armour performance has progressed at a tremendous rate since the early 2000s driven by improved materials technology and by investment to meet operational demands driven by experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were all positive steps, but the police certainly remain week in terms of night vision, whether thermal or image intensification, although military demand has driven performance growth in this area as well.

Despite the growth of terrorism, increasing levels of violent crime and, of course, drug-related crime, police personnel numbers and budgets have not really grown in response. The fact that the police can look to acquire military-grade equipment is a great benefit, allowing them to take advantage of economies of scale or the opportunity to acquire surplus equipment. There is also the opportunity to take advantage of military research and development in areas of joint interest, for example in less than lethal systems and munitions.

The ongoing wave of demonstrations in France has demonstrated that the non-lethal/less-than-lethal munitions being used by law enforcement are inflicting severe injuries during protests, and this is becoming increasingly unacceptable. Consequently being able to tap into military non-lethal research and development or acquire military systems could be a major advantage. To conclude, in an era of terrorism and organised crime, it is inevitable the relationship between military and law enforcement will become closer in terms of operational interaction and, on a case-by-case basis, equipment and training.

David Saw